by Dimana Trankova; illustration by Gergana Shkodrova

In Bulgaria, hearsay is a lot more important than official information

fake medicine.jpg

Thousands of Bulgarians, including some of the hacks and Boyko Borisov himself believe that an unregistered herbal medicine will save mankind from all kinds of cancer, diabetes, cirrhosis and even AIDS. That it can't is pretty obvious. But why are so many Bulgarians captivated by what can at best be described as a pretty ridiculous idea?

Alone in his Vienna office, a Bulgarian immigrant was deep in thought. Already past his 30s, he had studied medicine for seven semesters, but graduated in biochemistry. Driven by the desire to achieve something monumental, he came up with the idea of inventing a cure for cancer. Six months later, he devised an extract made from wild peony and common mullein. His experiments with mice were encouraging. His experiments with terminally ill people, who stayed in what has been described as the inventor's own clinic in Germany, were even more so. Most of them were cured.

Then the problems began. The German authorities refused to register the medicine and shut down the clinic because they had doubts about the accuracy of the reports. The Austrians were of the same opinion. In the early 1990s, he tried the Bulgarian Drug Agency, or IAL, but it refused registration. The immigrant believed, however, that his invention could cure all kinds of cancer, diabetes, cirrhosis and probably AIDS. He started producing and selling it on his own, from a small laboratory. By the turn of this century, his network of distributors in Bulgaria was so wide that they began advertising the drug in the media.

Eventually, the inventor realised that if he did not register his medicine, he would take its formula to the grave because he kept it only in his head. Then he had an idea. He decided to help his poor native country, Bulgaria, by selling the miracle drug for one billion euros. The country would become its sole producer and gain vast riches from it. Compared to such a prospect, a billion euros was but a trifle, wasn't it? But the registration failed once more. The law required a stack of documents, including the formula and validated clinical tests. The inventor had no intention of sharing this information with anyone before they handed over the cash.

It all sounds like the screenplay of a second-rate TV soap, but in fact it isn't. This is the true story of Prodan Hristov and his "cancer cure," Antimalignocyt. At first glance, it looks like a complete fabrication, except for those parts where IAL and its counterparts in Germany and Austria came into play.

At the beginning of the 21st Century, however, so many Bulgarians believe in Antimalignocyt that, compared to them, mediaeval doctors who treated their patients with bloodletting would seem enlightened. Over the past few months, the medicine has enjoyed massive publicity in Bulgaria. An association established specially for the purpose does everything possible to promote it. A Facebook group called Let's Protect Bulgarian Cancer Medicine Antimalignocyt has nearly 82,000 members. The media intone: broadsheets and TV channels give Prodan Hristov airtime, while the tabloids denounce him as a charlatan. Prime Minister Boyko Borisov's reaction is even stranger. He has promised his personal support for the registration of Antimalignocyt.

Regrettably, no one is immune to cancer. All of us have a friend or a relative who has died of or is fighting this deadly disease. But Hristov's story has become popular not only because it plays on our fear of death. It has caught on in the media and with the ever media – savvy prime minister because it embraces the most widespread fears, beliefs and phobias of Bulgarians in the early 21st Century. Here are some of them:

No one is a prophet in their own land. Prodan Hristov made his wonderful discovery only after emigrating in the 1950s. Had he stayed in Bulgaria, the state would have done all in its power to stifle him, and his fellow countrymen would have coldshouldered him. From here, we can logically come to another conclusion, which is often made when the state does not take adequate measures, as in the case of the Bulgarian nurses in Libya. If Hristov was French, British or German, he would have prospered. He would already be rich, with his own laboratory. His statue would be everywhere and he would have been nominated for the Nobel Prize for peace and medicine simultaneously.

Foreign powers want to steal the Bulgarian discovery. There is something very suspicious in the way Antimalignocyt was refused registration abroad. According to one of the many conspiracy theories, this was Hristov's punishment for his refusal to reveal his formula.

Herbs can cure everything. Yes, of course. For instance, I drink mint tea when I have a stomach ache, and it helps. In 1956 Bulgarian pharmacist Professor Dr Dimitar Paskov invented Nivalin, a drug that is used to this day for the treatment of poliomyelitis, cerebral palsy and disorders of the central and peripheral nervous system. Nivalin is produced from the bulbs of the summer snowflake. Why shouldn't peony and common mullein cure cancer?

Geniuses do not need specialised equipment. Bulgarians do not believe in tales of success that are based on 99 percent hard work and one percent talent. They believe stories where hard work accounts for one percent and the right connections or good luck 99 percent. This is why they have no problem embracing the idea that in this age of "great science" somebody discovered, in his own little laboratory and in less than six months, something that thousands of scientists with the benefit of unlimited funding have been seeking for decades.

Doctors are crooks. Anybody who has had any experience of the Bulgarian healthcare system will confirm this. Bribes are the norm, clinical tests are falsified to siphon money from the National Health Insurance Fund and the Hippocratic oath is kept in the same way as human rights are kept in North Korea. Why then should we believe doctors when they say that, at best, Antimalignocyt might have a placebo effect?

Rumours are more to be believed than official documents. The website of the Antimalignocyt Association has published several stories of patients who have been cured, but without their medical case history and other details. For the people who believe in the medicine, this information has a lot more weight than the explanations of the IAL why it can't register the drug. Why? Well, because… the women in Sofia's trams say so!

There is a conspiracy of pharmaceutical companies. This extends to the very core of the corrupt Bulgarian administration. Why should there be a conspiracy against Antimalignocyt? Don't be naïve. If a cheap and universal drug against cancer was available and produced, moreover, by a small country like Bulgaria, what would the large companies make their profit from? Wasn't the swine flu enough?

Don't believe in miracles; rely on them. In countries like Bulgaria, where rules are virtually non-existent, using connections is par for the course and the law has always been regarded as a "door in a field" – in other words, worthless – the only thing that people can do is believe in miracles. And they do. In 1989 they believed that the end of the Communist regime came naturally, and not because of an internal coup in the Communist Party. In 2001 they believed Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, soon to become prime minister through their votes, when he said he would improve the people's "situation considerably" within 800 days. In 2006 they believed the declaration of President Georgi Parvanov that he had not been an agent of the former State Security. In 2009 they believed...

Why shouldn't they believe in Antimalignocyt? The flaws in the arguments of the Antimalignocyt supporters are as large as the holes in the Greek budget. But what is worse is that the base they stem from is real. Generations of Bulgarians have felt a chronic mistrust of their state, which, according to an age-old saying, is "an evil stepmother for some and a milk cow for others."

What is inexcusable in this case is the spinelessness of Bulgarian journalism. The matter has been treated by some of the most prominent members of the trade in an extremely one-sided way. They did not speak to the relatives of patients who have used the drug without success. They did not ask the brilliant inventor whether he considers it morally justified to sell a secret formula for one billion euros and assert that he'd rather take the secret to his grave if no cash payment was made. And they openly manipulated public opinion by interpreting the Medicinal Products in Human Medicine Act in the same way as "Satan would read the gospel," as another saying goes.

Antimalignocyt is not being produced at the moment. But the women in Sofia's trams would like to see it registered as a food supplement.


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